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The Villages
Friday, June 21, 2024

Tragic holiday crashes serve as a sobering reminder of the need for roadway safety

If there’s one thing we would ask for during this holiday season it’s for every driver in the tri-county area to use common sense by slowing down, wearing seat belts and displaying more caution on the roadways.

As you probably already know, the past few days have proven to be a tragic time in Sumter, Lake and Marion counties. Six people have died as a result of vehicle crashes since Christmas Eve. And while it’s yet to be determined if speed or careless driving contributed to those deaths, the bottom line is this: Families members, loved ones and friends were left grieving and their lives will forever be tragically impacted in ways we can’t even imagine.

Jessica and Christopher Smith with their daughter, Haley.

The first crash – one that has shaken many area residents to the core – took the lives of Eustis couple Chris and Jessica Smith and their 13-year-old daughter, Haley. Chris, 44, and Jessica, 35, died on Christmas Eve when their 2018 Toyota passenger car was broadsided by a 2019 black Dodge Ram pickup truck driven by 33-year-old Zachary Waldo, of Mount Dora. The crash took place in Leesburg at the intersection of State Road 44 and Dozier Circle.

Christopher Smith and his son, Hunter.

On Christmas morning, Haley Smith succumbed to her injuries at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children. Their 11-year-old son, Hunter, is still fighting to recover at the same hospital and reportedly has been surrounded by family members.

We still don’t know who had the green light at the intersection of SR 44 and Dozier Circle. But we do know that a critically injured 11-year-old boy is now an orphan. One minute he was chatting with his parents and older sister. But in the blink of eye they were gone and his life was changed forever.

Chris had worked at the Leesburg Wal-Mart and was lauded as a boss who treated his employees right. Jessica had worked at Wal-Mart in the past but since October 2015 had been an employee of the Marion County Sheriff’s Office. On Thursday, Sheriff Billy Woods released a statement saying he was heartbroken to hear of the tragedy and offered prayers for Hunter as he goes through the long road to recovery.

Click HERE to support a fundraiser to help pay for the family’s final expenses and to help Hunter going forward.

Jacob G. Lowe

The day after Christmas, another unthinkable tragedy struck, this time in Summerfield. Jacob G. Lowe, 22, was driving his 2006 Ford F-150 pickup early in the morning when it veered into the median of U.S. Hwy. 441 near SE 132nd Lane and rolled over. The Summerfield man and father of a young son wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was ejected from his vehicle.

Lowe was then struck by two semi-trucks and another vehicle and later pronounced dead at Ocala Regional Medical Center. The lives of his young child, family and friends will never the same, nor will those of the innocent motorists who weren’t able to avoid hitting Lowe.

Later that night, tragedy struck again in Ocala when 71-year-old Gwendolyn T. Croskey was hit by two vehicles as she tried to cross State Road 200 just east of SW 103rd Street. Florida Highway Patrol troopers say she walked into the path of an eastbound 2012 Toyota Prius and was then struck by a second vehicle as well.

Croskey, a beautician and mathematics teacher at College of Central Florida, also left behind a grieving family. Like the others mentioned above, their lives will never be the same.

This Florida Turnpike camera photo shows the mass destruction from a Friday morning crash involving at least two semi-trucks.

On Friday, tragedy found motorists traveling on the Florida Turnpike in two separate-but-related crashes. The first involved two semi-trucks and a passenger car. The driver of one of the semis suffered serious injuries and the driver of the car suffered minor injuries in the melee, which demolished the cab of one semi and left the other one on its side on top of the guardrail in the southbound lanes.

The second crash on the turnpike, which happened as traffic slowed for the incident involving the semi-trucks, claimed the life of 52-year-old Miami resident Teresita Noriega, a passenger in one of the five vehicles involved in the chain-reaction incident. One minute she was riding along, no doubt chatting with the vehicle’s driver, 53-year-old Luis Strubbe, and the next she was suffering fatal injuries when their 2019 Nissan Sentra was caught up in the melee.

Would slowing down and being more cautious have prevented any of these deaths? We will never know for sure. But it stands to reason that it could have made some kind of a positive difference.

A five-vehicle crash on the Florida Turnpike on Friday morning left one person dead and four others injured. The crash happened in congested traffic following another incident four miles away involving two semi-trucks.

As we all know, the holidays aren’t over yet. New Year’s Eve is right around the corner. That’s the night alcohol and drugs typically invade the roadways and we are imploring every tri-county motorist to please avoid driving while impaired.

Call an Uber driver or a cab. Get a sober friend to give you a ride home. Or just spend the night at the site of your party. But whatever you do, please don’t get behind the wheel, where you run the chance of killing yourself and/or innocent people who might be in the path of the destruction you easily could cause.

Going forward, as you get behind the wheel of your vehicle, please give these safety tips – ones that could save your life and the lives of others – some thought:

  • Be attentive and drive responsibly.
  • Always wear your seatbelts.
  • Never drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • Don’t text and drive.
  • Give yourself enough time so you don’t speed.
  • Keep your eyes where they need to be.
  • Put your phone on “do not disturb” mode.
  • Use a mount if you count on your phone for GPS directions.
  • Choose music before you start driving.
  • Drive defensively, be safe and keep your rage in check.
  • Always expect other drivers to make mistakes and be prepared.
  • Obey speed limits and signs.
  • Drive with your headlights on to make your vehicle more visible.
  • Use turn signals.
  • Always look in all directions before driving away from a stop sign or traffic light.
  • Check your mirrors every 6-8 seconds and pay attention to what is happening on the sides of the road.
  • Pull to the right shoulder for approaching emergency vehicles and move over a lane for stopped law enforcement, emergency, sanitation, utility service vehicles and tow trucks.
  • When driving behind large trucks, remember that if you can’t see their rearview mirrors, they can’t see you.
  • Reduce your speed during inclement weather.
  • Remember that the faster you drive, the longer your braking distance will be.
Pastor Harold Hendren

In early December, the Rev. Harold Hendren, a pastor at New Covenant United Methodist Church, was critically injured in a vehicle crash and required cervical (neck) vertebrae surgery and another operation to repair a perforated bowel. Hendren was quite lucky to have survived the incident and in a Christmas miracle of sorts, he’s back home where he belongs. But like many of the survivors of the crashes over the past few days, he’s facing a long road to recovery.

That said, our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and loved ones of the victims we mentioned above. Going forward, we sincerely hope that every driver will take those tragedies to heart and think long and hard about what they’re doing when operating their vehicles.

We know that being more careful won’t end all automobile crashes. But it certainly won’t hurt and we believe it will make a huge difference. After all, if following the advice above saves just one life, wouldn’t it be worth it?

We certainly think so and we believe you do, too.

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